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Outline Your Career Path Today to Stay on Track Later

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Now that you’ve hopefully narrowed down your potential careers to just a few options, it’s time to start creating a road map for what your professional life could look like. Setting some goals now — both for the immediate future and also several years down the road — can help you make a realistic plan and stay on track to accomplish your professional aspirations. 

Short- vs. long-term goals

As you consider your future career, what is it you hope to accomplish? Getting clear on your intentions and setting detailed goals now could help you get there faster. 


When it comes to planning a decades-long career, it’s wise to break things down into short- and long-term goals. Short-term goals are things that can be accomplished in the next few years and involve things you can tackle now or will be able to do in the near future. Short-term goals might be things like completing an apprenticeship, finding an entry-level job, or even creating a professional website for yourself. 


Ideally, your short-term plan will lead into your long-term goals. These goals are things that you want to complete in the next 3+ years and involve things you’re probably not ready to tackle just yet. These will probably be less specific and more abstract than your short-term plan. Long-term goals can include things like completing graduate school, being promoted to a management position, or opening your own business.  

Every career path will look different

When it comes to setting these goals, it often helps to work backward. Imagine yourself at the peak of your career, and map out the broad steps you need to make it there. Then, add more detail, particularly on those short-term goals. The strongest plans are specific, measurable, and realistic, so keep those factors in mind when jotting down your road map.


If you plan to start your career right after high school, consider the skills and experience you already have (or can realistically develop) and compare that with where you’d like to end up in your career. What jobs will you be qualified for after graduating high school, and how will those jobs help you to develop new skills that you can use to move up in your career later? 


You can follow the same exercise if you plan to attend college. What skills or knowledge do you need to further develop while you’re getting your secondary education, and how will those translate into your first post-college job? Doing this exercise now can you help set some goals for what you need to learn or accomplish by the time you walk across the stage at graduation.


As you create this road map, keep all that labor market data you’ve already researched in mind — most notably, you’ll want to pay attention to potential salaries and how your earnings are projected to change over time. For example, workers in STEM often nab a higher salary in their first job but wages can plateau mid-career. Humanities and liberal arts majors usually enter the workforce at a lower salary, but their earnings often continue to grow throughout their careers. Factors like this are important to consider as you set your short- and long-term goals since you want to be sure your financial situation can support them. 


And remember, with the exception of highly specialized jobs, most careers don’t have one fixed path for entry. That means that your plan will likely look different from your classmates, even if you plan to enter the same industry.  

Bottom line

As you complete this goal-setting exercise, don’t overthink it. This experiment is simply meant to get you thinking about what you’d like from your professional life. While your goals will be good guidelines as you progress through your career, they’re not set in stone and will likely evolve over time. 


Every job you work in will help you build your hard and soft skills, which can often be translated into a related role later in your career. Plus, each job you have will help you discover more about what you like and dislike in a job, what motivates you in the workplace, the type of management style you respond best to, and more. Even if you stumble into a role you don’t like at some point, you’re still gathering valuable feedback that can show you what you need to be fulfilled and engaged in the workplace.

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